Author Sasha Abramsky tells Francine Wolfisz about his grandfather’s fascinating library of 20,000 books
As a child, I knew it was a special house, but if you had asked me why, I couldn’t give you a coherent answer. I just assumed old people had lots and lots of interesting books and really interesting friends.”
Such were Sasha Abramsky’s fond memories of his grandparents, Chimen and Miriam, and their unique home at 5 Hillway, Highgate, which contained a vast repository of books, manuscripts and documents. Over his lifetime and until his death in 2010, Chimen (pronounced “Shimon”) had accumulated an astonishingly rare library of socialist literature and Jewish history, while his modest north London home had transformed into a latter-day salon.
Hundreds of the world’s leading thinkers, rabbis, politicians and artists, from Isaiah Berlin to Eric Hobsbawm, often stopped by for coffee, bread and herring and to marvel at the literal “walls of words” inhabiting Chimen’s home.
“By the end of his life, every single room in the house, except the bathroom and kitchen, was lined from floor to ceiling with shelves double-stacked with books, with just a few bare spots left in which paintings and photographs hung,” writes Abramsky in The House of Twenty Thousand Books, a newly-published elegy to the fascinating world of his liberalist grandparents.
The California-based journalist, who is the nephew of retired BBC executive Dame Jenny Abramsky, felt compelled to write his touching memoir shortly after Chimen, the last of his four grandparents, passed away from Parkinson’s disease, aged 93.
“I was totally torn up, not because it was a premature death, but because I realised that if I didn’t talk to people now about Chimen and his library, it would become a vanished world that was impossible to reconstruct.” As he trawled through the volumes, Abramsky discovered the shelves contained more than just the books collected by the ardent bibliophile: they in fact revealed “the story of his life”.
Abramsky, who grew up in west London and now lives in Sacramento with his wife Julie and their two children, explains: “It became fascinating working out where he was at different stages of his life, intellectually, spiritually and culturally, and how it all played into the library he built up.”
Chimen’s liberalist world view and socialist leanings in adult life were all the more remarkable given that he grew up within an Orthodox-Jewish family. His Russian-born father, Yehezkel, was eight when he was identified as an illui or “religious wunderkind” and was groomed to become a Talmudic scholar.
By the time he reached his thirties, the elder Abramsky was one of the best known religious leaders in the Russian empire, but fell out of favour with Stalin. By 1929, he was arrested by Russia’s secret police and sentenced to hard labour in Siberia. His plight prompted international outcry, including from the World Jewish Congress and British politician Anthony Eden. Eventually he was released after an intervention from the German government, which agreed to exchange him for six communist prisoners. The family moved first to Germany and then to Britain, settling in London in 1932.
But as Abramsky discovered while researching his book, even by the time Chimen had turned 15, he had begun breaking away from his Orthodox roots and turning to communism. “This was one of the great mysteries,” the author ponders. “How do you go from being the son of a very famous rabbi to being an outspoken communist and very anti-religion?”
Abramsky believed the transformation occurred after arriving in London, but Chimen’s letters reveal he had become immersed in communism as a youth back in Russia. “He lost his Orthodox, rabbinic instincts as a teenager but, interestingly, the way he threw himself into communism was religious,” adds Abramsky. “He was as familiar with the great Jewish texts as he was with the great communist texts and in terms of scholastic practice, he was as fastidious as his father.”
Chimen became increasingly disillusioned with communism and the barbarity of Stalin’s regime, later transforming himself instead into a liberal and humanist. With a boundless love for books, he earned a reputation as a polymath who could read in 10 languages. He made his living asa book dealer and as a noted scholar of Jewish history, became professor of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at UCL. For many years, Sotheby’s auction house called upon Chimen’s expertise in rare manuscripts.
Abramsky recognises Chimen’s prowess was a “rare feat, even for his generation”, but perhaps even rarer in today’s technology-filled world.
“All you need to do today is put a few keywords into Google and we can get the information, but it makes us lazy,” comments Abramsky. “That rigour and self-training, of reading books and storing information and knowing how to access it again, I do think to a degree that we are losing the ability to do that.”
Never using the internet or email, Chimen often described himself as “a dinosaur”, a man who would never have dreamt of swapping his beloved books for a Kindle. It’s a thought that amuses Abramsky, yet at the same time fills him with sadness because he acknowledges that his grandfather “knew his world was vanishing”.
He adds: “Books were tactile for him. He was as much fascinated by the information as the folios, the type of paper it was published on and signatures.
“If he found a rare volume by Marx with his “annotations, that was an essential experience. These were the things that gave a book its true value.”
Following his death, the family faced the “heartbreaking” decision to sell Chimen’s extensive library, but Abramsky feels gratified others can enjoy the volumes so cherished by his grandfather.
“Books are supposed to be enjoyed,” Abramsky says. “There’s nothing sillier than putting them away behind a glass case and never looking at them. For Chimen, it was a world that gave him pleasure and that he inhabited in the most intimate way.”
Review by Francine Wolficz
© Jewish News 2014